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Oooh, friends, the FAFSA opens October 1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), used to calculate something called the expected family contribution (EFC), measures a family’s financial strength and eligibility for financial aid.
Once, Mr. Donelson, my student Chris’ dad, swaggered into my office and said, “We don’t file the FAFSA. I make too much money.”
Not one to meekly say, “Okay, it’s your choice,” I took a wild gamble, knowing full well my boss would have a coronary. I said, “Sir, how close are you to retirement?” (It was a gamble because I wasn’t sure if he was actually close to retirement or not.)
“A year, tops.” (Whew.)
“How many kids do you have in college right now?” (I already knew that answer.)
“After Chris, we’ll have four in college all at the same time,” he said proudly.
“Did you know the FAFSA takes those factors, like time to retirement and kids in college, into consideration?” I asked politely.
“Hmmm,” he responded.
He filed the FAFSA and I’m happy to tell you that his son received federal aid, including work-study. He worked in our admission office as a tour guide and was a total rock star.
Why is the FAFSA important? I’m so glad you asked.
Actually, these secrets — not so hidden. But you won’t know unless you file. Everyone should file the FAFSA! Even if you can fill an Olympic-sized pool with all of your $100 bills, you should file the FAFSA. As I shared with Mr. Donelson, there’s more that goes into the expected family contribution, or EFC, than just parent income.
Your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) chips into the formula. Also rolled into it: Family size and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year.
2. Your child can qualify for federal aid.
Your child will not get federal aid if you don’t file the FAFSA. Completing this form is the only way to receive state and federal financial aid.
The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. This includes low-cost loans, grants and work-study.
3. You might have to do it for your child to qualify for other aid.
Put federal student aid to the side for a sec. The FAFSA may also determine your student’s eligibility for other forms of financial aid through the state, the college and, sometimes, private scholarships.
By the way, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It is excellent at helping you navigate scholarships!
4. Your child can get work-study.
I mentioned this already but I think it deserves a second mention. Federal work-study is a way you can earn money while your child works a part-time on-campus job. (You may be able to get off-campus jobs as well.) Not every school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, so ask whether colleges your child wants to attend participate.
Colleges offer a specific amount of funds to each eligible student. Students receive money based on the hours they work, very similar to other hourly jobs.
5. You might have to do it anyway.
Depending on where your child goes to school, completing the FAFSA is a prerequisite for high school graduation. Check with your student’s guidance counselor for more information.
6. Most students qualify for federal loans.
Never, ever, ever, ever EVER take out private student loans before federal loans. Private loans have high interest rates and lack the consumer protections that federal student loans include.
The Institute for College Access and Success reports that 47 percent of private loan borrowers could have used more affordable federal loans. By completing the FAFSA form, you can make sure your student takes advantage of the best student loan options.
7. You don’t have to accept all aid.
Completing the FAFSA does not obligate your child to accept student loans or any other form of financial aid. So, for example, let’s say your child gets:
- Federal student loans
- State grants
- Federal work-study
You and your child can decide you want the scholarships and grants (free money) but don’t want the federal student loans (must be repaid).
Many families think they have to take everything the student gets awarded — but that’s just not true!
8. Your child may leave money on the table.
Take a wild guess at the percentage of high school graduates who completed the FAFSA in 2014.
Only 44 percent.
All that money — unused! It means billions of dollars left on the table.
9. Situations change.
What happens if you experience a change in income? You’ll be glad you filed.
Situations change. Unfortunately, jobs get lost, people pass away, etc. Your financial situations can change. Remember, you can always appeal for more aid every year.
Just because your student doesn’t receive financial aid one year doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get it another year.
10. It’s free.
Note the “Free” in “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It costs exactly no money to apply, and more importantly, you don’t have to pay anything to find out whether your child is eligible for federal aid.
11. It’s easy.
It’s no longer the behemoth it once was. (I remember my dad spending hours hunched over the paper version when I was in college.) Now, it takes just 55 minutes to fill it out. That’s less than the time it takes to order and eat a pizza. That’s less than an entire Netflix episode.
12. You can gather just a few materials to fill it out.
What materials should I gather in advance before starting the FAFSA?
- Driver’s license number (if you have one).
- Your 2019 tax records for the 2021–22 FAFSA form. You report your 2019 income information on this year’s form.
- Records of untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, and veterans’ non-education benefits.
- Your assets (money) from savings and checking account balances, investments and real estate, though you don’t include your primary residence.
- List of the school(s) on your child’s list. Add any college your child’s considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. You can list up to 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA.
13. It (could) ensure your child goes to college.
Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA proceed directly to college, versus only 55 percent who don’t complete the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN).
14. You can fill it out early — then relax.
Fill it out as soon as possible! Even if you don’t know which school you plan to attend. You can always add various schools’ FAFSA code to your already-filled out FAFSA as the year progresses. So, let’s say you file the FAFSA on October 1. You add three schools that you want the FAFSA to be sent to, then you become interested in another school in November. You can log back in and have it sent to that school as well.
It’s also okay to add a school to the FAFSA that you decide later on that you won’t apply for.
15. It helps schools that also require the CSS profile to understand your full financial picture.
What’s the diff between the FAFSA and CSS Profile? The FAFSA awards families with federal grants, scholarships and student loans, while the CSS helps schools award non-federal institutional aid.
Filling out the CSS Profile does not take the place of the FAFSA. Rather, it is an additional application for non-federal financial aid.
Schools that require the CSS typically meet 90 to 100 percent of family need and package their financial aid with institutional grant money.
The CSS has some significant differences from the FAFSA, in particular the way it calculates certain assets.
- The FAFSA considers cash gifts as a part of parents’ total assets.
- FAFSA looks strictly at numbers such as income and family size, so families must discuss personal situations and hardships directly with schools.
- The CSS counts cash gifts as parental income, which decreases a dependent student’s eligibility for aid.
- The CSS takes a closer look at family finances than the FAFSA does.
- The CSS evaluates a family’s medical bills and school costs for younger children, among other factors, to determine a family’s expected contribution.
- For some students, this could mean more financial aid opportunities are available through the CSS.
You Want the Best Shot Possible
The FAFSA is important, even if you’re not sure what will come of it. File it anyway. You don’t want to be wondering “what could have been.”
The FAFSA gives your child the best possible chance of receiving federal aid. Don’t leave money on the table. Like Mr. Donelson, it might make you wonder why you ever doubted it in the first place.
Happy FAFSA filing!
Your high schooler’s busier than you. (Okay, maybe not.) But between cross country practice, homework (ugh — how hard is trig?!) and making sure those gym shorts smell Snuggle-fresh, who has time for anything else?
Even though your kiddo’s busy, it’s still important to put that math homework to good use because it could affect your child for the rest of his life.
Check this out.
When Caroline was 14 years old, she and her dad decided to invest $2,000 every year for five years. Call it a little experiment, if you will. Here’s what it looked like:
Age 14: $2,000
Age 15: $2,000
Age 16: $2,000
Age 17: $2,000
Age 18: $2,000
Caroline and her dad invested no more money than that initial $10,000.
Fast forward 51 years. How much money did Caroline have after 10 percent annual return, at age 64?
How’s that for some incredible math? (Skip solving for x.)
Why Learn About Money Now?
Investing is so important — but that’s not all your child should spend time learning. Unfortunately, high schools and colleges just don’t teach basic financial literacy.
It changes lives when they learn this stuff early:
- Your kids show up equipped to handle debt. The less debt a child has over his lifetime, the more he’ll be able to do the things he wants to do, such as buy a home, purchase the things he wants (not on credit), retire and more.
- It’s fun. When you see money compound, your eyes fall out of your head. It’s more fun than living paycheck to paycheck, that’s for sure.
- It’s habitual. Get it together early on and those good money habits will follow your child the rest of his life. Encourage him to put 10 percent of his income into a retirement account and increase that account a little bit at a time. Your child will be in good shape if she keeps it up till retirement!
- It makes him a lifelong money learner. Books about money these days are so dang good. And so inspiring! Check out Why Didn’t They Teach Me This in School?. He might start stuffing it into his trig book and devouring it during class.
Money Topics Your Child Won’t Learn in School
Here’s what your child needs to learn about money management from you, through books and other methods.
Budgeting and Other Fun Stuff
Budgeting 101 is typically not an essential high school class, so check out the basic budgeting steps your child should know. Why not let him in on all your expenses and bills so he sees what you do?
- Add up expenses like rent, utilities, internet, groceries, clothes, household supplies — you know, those fun adult things you get to tackle each month.
- Add up income. How much money do you make from all income sources?
- Subtract expenses from income.
- Understand the difference between “needs” and “wants.” Start applying this now. “Needs” should only include necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and more. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and expensive jeans. A really crucial lesson for kids to understand!
- Sign up for automatic bill pay. Incurring extra fees or interest when you fail to pay your bills on time is a real bummer — and it can ding your credit. Show your child how you pay for everything on time.
Make it fun! Your child can tap into lots of budgeting apps, like YNAB and Mint.
Encourage your child to learn about college costs, including a few keywords:
- Tuition: The cost of taking classes at a college
- Room: On-campus housing
- Board: Meals on campus
- Activity fee: Fee to go to events on campus
- Total cost: The sticker price — most students won’t pay this amount!
Let Quatromoney help you (and your child) understand college costs. Quatromoney helps you assess how savings and cash can help your child reduce the need for loans. The company helps your child plan for four years, not just the first year of college.
It’s really important to understand student loans — heck, all loans! — because your child might need them to pay for college.
Student loans seem super complicated, right? They are. For now, let’s reduce student loans into just a few quick facts:
- You pay interest when you borrow. Interest is the amount your child pays (a percentage of a loan) to borrow money. In other words, when your child borrows money for student loans, it costs more money to pay them back. The longer your child takes to pay them back, the more he owes. (Does your child understand this stuff?)
- Take federal loans first and private loans as a last resort. (Let’s go over this more in a second.)
- Get to know the college’s financial aid office. Financial aid officers can help your child navigate everything. Get to know the financial aid personnel at your child’s college. You’ll be happier for it.
Now, onto the basics of federal and private student loans.
Federal Student Loans
The U.S. Department of Education offers Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans and Direct PLUS loans, including Grad PLUS loans for graduate and professional students and Parent PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students.
What to know: Federal student loans trump private student loans for several reasons:
- No credit checks are involved (although Direct PLUS loans do require a credit check).
- Your child might qualify for an income-based repayment plan once he graduates, which means it depends on how much money your child makes once he graduates from college.
- They’re most often forgiven, which means your child may not have to repay. This depends on which career your child chooses after graduation.
- Federal student loan interest rates are lower compared to private loans.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans fill in the need gap after your child exhausts all scholarship, grant, savings and federal student loan options.
What to know: Private loans often require a co-signer. This person is commonly you or another relative. A co-signer needs a good credit score and needs to show proof of income.
Finally, remember that co-signers are just as responsible for paying back loans. Have a conversation with your child about risk and how your child plans to repay private loans before your child agrees to co-sign.
Starting a Retirement Fund — Now! Yes, Now!
Let’s go back to that fun math problem we did at the very beginning of this article. It took Caroline 51 years to earn a million dollars. Sixty-five years old might feel like it’s a lifetime away.
I’ll repeat what Grandma told your child a million times: “You’ll be my age before you know it, Sonny!”
She’s right — you know that now! (How do the years slip by?)
Do you wish you’d saved $2,000 for five years starting at age 14? I’m sure you do. Hopefully that example is enough of a motivation. Hopefully it propels your kid to scrape up the money from every birthday he’s ever had and invest it.
What to know: If your child’s earned income, she can contribute to a Roth IRA. This could include money earned from a W-2 job or even from self-employment gigs like dog-sitting.
Help Your Child with Financial Literacy
It’s easy for a high schooler to think, “I’ve got plenty of time to figure this stuff out!”
It’s easy to say, “Retirement’s like, 100 years away.”
It’s not! Help your child with this knowledge and let her peer over your shoulder when you’re doing things like paying bills online. Involve your child — they’re great lessons for the future.
I’m in awe of the things my parents say to my kids: “Sure, you can do/have/play with/buy that! And here’s an ice cream cone. And $50. Oh, and a kitten.”
I find myself wondering, “Where was that generosity when I was a kid?”
Then I remember: Oh, yeah, at my grandparents’ house.
Your parents (your kids’ grandparents) may want to help you save for college.
Bravo for them! The only thing is, they may have very specific ideas on how they want to do it — which might not be the most advantageous to your child or the best option, tax-wise.
Let’s go through a few ways grandparents can help!
How Grandparents Can Help Save for College
Your parents may be in a perfect position to help for college — they may have plenty of money saved up and have plenty of ideas! But first… tamp down the excitement! College funds for grandchildren (and alternative options!) can go lots of directions.
1: Start a conversation.
The first step: Always start with a family conversation.
I remember working with this family in admission, the Larsons, who wanted their son to pitch in for some college costs. However, the grandparents wanted to pay the whole bill! (Tempers ran high, especially when the grandparents went behind the Larsons’ back and paid for a whole year of college up front.)
Your parents can tap into a number of strategies. Throughout these conversations, consider how college savings might impact the whole family:
- Maybe you want your child to shoulder some of the cost so he takes college more seriously.
- You want to cover the majority of the costs with your own money. (“My kid, my responsibility.”)
- You want to make sure your parents keep their own needs at the helm. Maybe they may live on a fixed income in retirement and shouldn’t pay for college.
- Certain savings vehicles might affect the financial aid your child receives.
2: Discuss specific vehicles.
Your parents may have it in their head exactly how they want to help your child pay for college. But is it the best option for your family? Here are some great topics to launch your conversations.
Talk About 529 Plans
What’s a 529 plan? Many people herald them as the grandpappy of all college savings plans. Here’s why: Your parents won’t pay taxes on earnings and withdrawals as long as your child uses them for qualified education expenses. (Your parents can also save $10,000 of tuition expenses for elementary, middle, or high school education and to repay qualified student loans and expenses for apprenticeship programs.)
Your child can use 529 savings at accredited institutions for:
- Other educational expenses
Appeal factor: 529 plans must be used for educational purposes and nothing else. For estate tax purposes: The money is no longer considered part of the parents’ or grandparents’ estate.
Your parents might wonder whether to use these options if your child is in high school. They sure can! For example, they can put in five years of annual gifts — up to $15,000 (up to $75,000 per person, per beneficiary) at once without messing with gift tax or scraping away at the lifetime gift tax exclusion.
Consider UGMAs or UTMAs
Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, also called custodial accounts, let the grandchild take control of assets in the account as soon as they reach a specified age. What age? That depends on your state laws.
The custodian (who can be anyone — it doesn’t have to be your parents) controls the account until your child reaches (usually) 18 or 21. After that, he can spend the money on whatever he wants, even a brand-new Corvette. You may want to have a conversation with your parents about skipping this option if your kid’s liable to say, “I’m rich, I’m rich! Never mind going to college, let’s all go to the south of France!” And then he rents a house on the beach for his friend for a month and the money’s gone.
Another issue: You can’t transfer UGMAs or UTMAs to another beneficiary. For example, let’s say it becomes super apparent that your child will goof off with the money. Your parents can’t switch and give money to a more studious sibling.
Also — talk to your parents about the possibility that your child will get less financial aid if your parents opt for a UGMA or UTMA because they count as student assets and factor in at 20 percent, more than the 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent for parent assets. (Yikes!)
Warn them that they won’t see as many tax benefits. The interest, dividends and earnings is the child’s income and taxed at the child’s tax rate once the child reaches age 18. The first $1,100 is untaxed if the child is under 18 and the next $1,100 is taxed at the child’s rate. Anything over $2,100 is taxed at the grandparent’s rate. Visit IRS.gov for more information.
Appeal factor: You can contribute virtually any type of asset toward both UGMAs and UTMAs. You can even contribute real estate to an UTMA. Your path is much less limited and your parents may like the larger number of investment options in a custodial account compared to a 529 plan.
Talk about Coverdell ESAs
A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account for paying qualified education expenses. You can pay qualified higher education expenses (and elementary and secondary education expenses) with a Coverdell ESA. Note: The designated beneficiary must be under the age of 18 or be a special needs beneficiary.
Your parents can contribute to a Coverdell ESA with cash but they’re not deductible. The downside is that the total contribution to all accounts on behalf of a beneficiary in any year can’t exceed $2,000 with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $190,000. The amount reduces incrementally for MAGI between $190,000 and $220,000. If your parents’ incomes rise above $220,000, they’re ineligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA.
Whew, that was kind of boring. Sorry! Let’s up the excitement in the appeal factor section.
Appeal factor: Tax-free withdrawals! More investment flexibility than 529s! No withdrawal cap like the 529’s $10,000 tax-free withdrawal cap for qualified expenses to an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school! Also, your parents can transfer money from one grandchild to another.
3: What if they prefer to pay the bill directly? Talk through it.
“We’re not interested in all that,” your parents may say, with a wave of a hand. “Taxes, shmaxes.”
You may reply (with a hint of exasperation in your voice), “But a savings vehicle makes the most sense, tax-wise!”
Paying directly is not considered a gift. Your parents could still use their annual gift exclusion to give up to $15,000 to one grandchild. However, direct tuition payments do affect financial aid. The other downside is that money doesn’t grow tax-free in an account — your child doesn’t have interest working in his favor.
4: Discuss a tuition payment plan.
The tuition payment plan is one of the secrets of breaking up college payments into tinier chunks. It simply means you pay for an item in fixed amounts at specified intervals — you make small payments over time. A tuition installment plan means you can reduce a remaining balance by splitting it up into a specified number of months. You’ll pay that amount over a typical nine- to 12-month period.
Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes:
- Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
- Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.
A tuition payment plan does not include things like transportation, school supplies and other outside expenses.
Talk about a specific monthly amount they want to help with — and make sure you agree.
5: Discuss money they’ve already ferreted away.
Do your parents have money ripe for plucking in traditional and/or Roth IRA accounts? Why not use it to pay for their grandchild’s college education — particularly if they’ll have plenty of money left in it for themselves?
As long as your parents are 59½ and older, they can withdraw money from a traditional IRA to pay for college without paying a 10 percent penalty on distributions. Traditional IRA owners do pay federal income tax on the amount withdrawn.
If your parents are under 59½, it’s better to take money from a Roth IRA. Your parents won’t suffer a 10 percent penalty on distributions used for qualified education expenses as long as the account as long as they’ve had the account for five years.
A Sweet Gesture
Even when you disagree on the vehicle to pay for it (or, like the Larsons’ parents, paid for the whole thing without permission) you’ve got to recognize the effort your parents are putting in.
The best thing you can do is talk as a family to discover which option fits your child best.
This year, college application season feels like you’re a sloth. You finally move three inches, then get sizzled on a power line.
You should see the questions on college Facebook groups I belong to.
One parent just posted, “My daughter is a senior and her Sept ACT got cancelled again. What can we do to get a test scheduled. The dates r blocked till Dec. any info would be appreciated.”
Another one posted, “So do kids have to take the SAT or ACT and whcih one. I’m confused.”
I do love social media spelling and grammar — because you know what it means? You’re BUSY. You don’t have time for punctuation! Don’t waste another second monkeying around figuring out how to get this school year started. Get the College Money Tips Start of School Checklist for the College Search now. You need this checklist, if not just to keep your sanity!
Now, let’s get to our burning topic: ACT and SAT and all the questions.
Should My Child Take the ACT or SAT?
Is this not the question OF. THE. YEAR?
College website says: “Standardized tests are optional.”
You say, “Uhmmmm… Is that a trick question?”
First of all, let’s talk about these tests. Colleges use both the ACT and SAT, or standardized tests, for admission purposes and to determine which students receive merit-based scholarships.
Most colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. (Learn more: What Does ACT Stand For? And What Does SAT Stand For?) Typically, colleges have no preference for which test your child takes, despite persistent rumors that one is “better” than the other.
Just when you think you have it all figured out — ZZZZZZszzzt. (That’s the sound of crisping sloth.)
The question just got more complicated because now colleges have introduced test optional, test flexible and test blind.
Test Optional, Flexible and Blind: Versions of the Same Thing?
I marvel at the way college admission offices invent terms to addle our brains. (Consider how many types of admission exist in this world.)
What the. Heck. is Test Optional?
Your child gets a choice about whether to send in SAT or ACT scores.
As if things couldn’t get murkier.
It’s like they’re saying, “Weeeelll, you can send in SAT scores — if you think you want to.”
If this is your response: “Seriously. Just tell us what to do. If we need to, we’ll take the test. We’ll wear eight masks! We’ll stand in line for days! Just tell us what to do — I don’t want to hear that it’s optional.” I completely understand.
But that’s really the deal with test optional. You and your child decide whether to submit test scores with the application. Most test-optional schools consider SAT and ACT scores if they are submitted, with a large caveat. They also consider:
- Student essays
They look at these just as (or more) closely than your test scores.
The benefit: Test optional gives your child a chance to purposefully craft his or her candidacy. It means your child can offer other ways to present herself in the best way possible. Maybe your Scorsese-obsessed child submits a video essay. Maybe your daughter can craft her essay around the novel she started two years ago.
You and your child get more control over what your child presents to those steely-eyed admission officers!
What’s Test Flexible?
So, test flexible. This is my favorite, because it looks like it’s more relaxed, but you still have to take a test!
A test-flexible policy requires your child to send test scores but students submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT. A few examples:
- SAT Subject Test
- International Baccalaureate exam
- Advanced Placement test
Now… Test Blind? (Are They Kidding?)
A handful of colleges allow test blind admission. I know, I know. The fun never stops.
Colleges with test-blind admission policies do not want you to send test scores at all.
Sounds like the most straightforward option of all of them, doesn’t it?
The college’s website might sound something like this, from Northern Illinois University: “Test-blind means that we will not review standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) for general admission and merit scholarship consideration starting with applicants for the fall of 2021.”
But then NIU’s site goes on to say, “We’ll look at your high school GPA instead. Research shows that GPA is a better indicator of success in college. You may need to provide your ACT or SAT score for certain other scholarships. You’ll also need to provide it if you’re applying to the nursing program, a limited admission program.”
Read everything because college policies vary!
How Do Students Get Admitted Without SAT or ACT Scores?
How do students get admitted without SAT or ACT scores?
It’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, most U.S. colleges admitted two-thirds or more of students who apply. And don’t forget that most public four-year and community colleges are open access. This means no exams required!
I decided to catch up with one test-optional college to find out what test optional means at that institution. Terri Crumley, director of admissions at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), says, “At UNI, students not submitting a test score (test-optional) will be reviewed using holistic review. The review will include factors such as the student’s high school GPA and core course selection.”
How Are Scholarships Dished Out Without ACT/SAT Scores?
How does no ACT or SAT translate to scholarships?
“We are offering initial scholarships based on the GPA. We also have some scholarships that will require an ACT/SAT score or an additional application. Need-based scholarships will also be available,” says Crumley.
However, it’s extremely important to check with the institutions your child’s interested in to determine how each college offers scholarships, particularly scholarships where you might need to audition and more.
How to Decide Whether to Take the ACT or SAT
Now your child must decide whether to take the SAT or ACT. Take these steps to figure it out.
Step 1: Look carefully at colleges’ qualifications.
Check online first. You may quickly figure out that all schools you apply to are kind of in the same pool — all test optional or all test flexible.
Do they require class rank, weighted and unweighted GPA? Make sure you look for all the details and all the requirements.
“Most high schools are not using class rank anymore. If a high school offers both a weighted and unweighted GPA, students should include both,” says Crumley.
Step 2: Reach out to schools your child’s interested in.
Every school is different. I can’t stress this enough. Let’s say your child’s grades aren’t stellar. The ACT may boost your child’s qualifications, so he might want to take the SAT or ACT.
You must get on the phone with admission counselors and find out what they recommend. Share your particular situation.
Ask questions like this:
- Will taking the ACT or SAT greatly enhance my child’s chances of getting admitted?
- What other things can we do to increase my child’s chances of getting in?
- Should we include letters of recommendation or additional personal statements? What additional materials do you need? Academic work? Scientific research?
- What are your exact policies? Do these policies depend on my child’s potential major?
Step 3: Make sure your child gets a seat.
Have you decided it’s in your child’s best interest to take the ACT or SAT?
It might be hard to get a seat. For example, the ACT has done its best to place the class of 2021 seniors in seats at sites that are currently open for the fall. Some of these students could not be automatically registered for fall test dates. However, ACT has tried to secure additional space for students.
Consider where you might be able to go beyond your area to take the test or arrange for alternate test dates.
Make a Decision
By the way, if it seems as if I’m making light of admission policies and processes, it’s simply to get you to smile. In no way do I mean to make light of the situation we’re in.
Colleges continue to exhibit flexibility and adjust requirements for students. For those with younger students: Nobody really knows how the situation will change.
The process of learning about the SAT and ACT might seem sloth-like. No matter what, though, ACT cancellations should not put your child at a disadvantage.
You’re crazy-busy. You’re barely keeping up with your work and home load. Your brain fog bests you on your best day. You simply don’t have time to go on college visits and (admit it!) you’re a teensy bit excited that virtual tours are in.
You can wear your hideous dog-chewed slippers to the meeting and nobody cares about your messy bun piled on top of your head.
The benefits of doing an online tour:
- You don’t have to climb into the car.
- No hotel rooms for you.
- You don’t have to board the dog or your other kids.
- Your partner doesn’t have to take off work (and you don’t have to ask your boss for time off — again).
But hold up. You don’t get off that easy. You don’t get to smack your laptop top down and yell, “Done! That’s college tour number 84 — in my puffy socks! Yahoooo!!!!!”
Because I’m going to challenge you to go a few steps further — including putting on makeup for a Zoom meeting.
Because you can’t — absolutely cannot! — manhandle a virtual tour to make it the same as an in-person experience.
Sure, you want to know how to schedule a college visit that checks all the boxes, but what else can you do on a virtual tour that mimics a college visit? Well, a personal college visit usually includes:
- Campus tour
- Interview with an admission counselor
- Conversation with a financial aid professional
- Meeting with a coach (if applicable)
- Chatting with a professor or a presentation on your major
- Appointments with other individuals on campus
Ready to bend these activities toward a virtual visit? Put on your puffy slippers, put your laptop in front of your child — and let’s dive in.
Check out the College’s Website
Obvious, right? All colleges’ websites should maintain a complete policy update for how the college conducts visits. The college may:
- Do virtual-only visits
- Allow on-campus visits
- Permit on-campus visits with specific protocols in place (masks, hand sanitizer, etc.)
Furthermore, the website explains how you can take a virtual visit.
For example, see Bethel University’s website. It’s a slick design and lets you click on the videos — and it includes all the elements of what would happen during a regular campus visit.
Take a Tour
Ideally, a virtual tour will show a real tour guide giving an actual tour of the campus. As you know, you’ll encounter a few downsides of a virtual tour:
- You can’t grill the tour guide.
- They show the very best a campus has to offer. (Do you think they’ll show you a dungeon-like residence hall?) Nope!
- It’s tough to get perspective. You can’t see the giant ceilings in the chapel or hear the echoey reverb in a huge lecture hall.
- You won’t feel the chill in the air or the leaves crunch underfoot.
- Most virtual tours exclude throngs of students. Virtual tours clear all people out so the tour guide (and the tour guide alone!) is center stage. You won’t see many students scurry to class.
- In short, nothing replaces an on-campus visit.
The cure to these problems is obviously to take an in-person campus tour to get a feel for the classrooms, dorms, dining halls and other hot spots on campus.
The next-best thing is to get on the phone with a student, and most admission offices can make that happen. Just ask — prepare a list of questions beforehand.
Contact Your Child’s Admission Counselor
Take the visit one step further. Don’t just listen to the admission counselor video spiel online. You want to get to know your child’s admission counselor — more specifically, you want your child to get to know his own admission counselor.
Your child’s admission counselor gives out trade secrets. The dirt. Everything you want to know about the college.
Isn’t the admission counselor’s job to get you to attend an institution?
Sure. But that doesn’t mean that if you ask really pointed questions that they won’t be honest with you. They should.
You won’t get insider tips from virtual college tours. That’s why it’s vital to pick up the phone or have a Zoom chat as part of your tour.
It’s okay if your virtual tour doesn’t coincide with your counselor talk. You and your child may take the virtual tour on Monday, then talk with an admission counselor on Thursday. It gives you a chance to think of great questions you have after watching the tour.
Talk with Financial Aid
This is another conversation you want to schedule. Your situation is unique. Don’t let a generic video from a “Hurray! Go Tigers!” virtual visit be your only guide to financial aid from a particular school.
You deserve better than that!
Again, if financial aid is part of the online tour, watch it. Then call the college or university to explore how the financial aid process works for your particular situation. You can get a lot accomplished during one financial aid phone call. You get to ask questions that pertain directly to your situation, such as:
- I’m nearing retirement. What will my child’s financial aid award look like then?
- We have $5,000 in an UTMA for our child. How will that affect his aid award?
- Could you put together a financial aid early estimate for my child? We’d like to see in advance what the award letter will look like.
- [Insert your questions here.]
Get on Zoom, on Google Hangouts, on the phone. Make sure your child listens in (no matter how bored he is). Do you know how many kids were on the verge of slumber when they listened to my financial aid spiel in the admission office? (I shoulda made it more interesting.)
Anyway, give yourself permission to poke a little more than most people will. Don’t settle for the online video!
Listen to Students Online
As part of the virtual tour, many colleges include videos of students talking about themselves, their majors and extracurricular activities. Listen to these online videos. Then remember it’s all a marketing ploy.
I know that’s a cynical attitude, but remember that colleges usually pick their most accomplished, affable students to video. This isn’t always a great representation of the student body.
Do you know someone who already goes to the school your child’s considering? Encourage your child to set up a coffee or Zoom meeting with the student. It’s the best way to get the most candid analysis — students will likely blurt out the pros and cons without prompting. Listen for information like:
- “Get a load of this. Our college did X, X and X right after COVID-19.”
- “Our cafeteria food is awesome. You’ll love Stromboli Day.”
- “Here’s what I’d change about College X.”
- “I love this about College X and that’s why you should go here.”
Remind your child that information from one person is just that — one person’s experience. If it’s possible for your child to talk to more than one person at the college, that’s great! The more feedback from a large number of students your high schooler can get, the better.
Just because one student’s having an awesome or crummy experience doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone else.
Listen to Coaches Online
Coaches might also put up videos online of the “Go Tigers!” variety. Again, make it a point to talk with coaches individually. Most likely, you and your student won’t have to worry too much because coaches will want to talk to you if they’re interested.
Check out the coach section questions to ask on a college tour for a great list of questions.
Other Ways to Learn More
You want to get as snoopy as possible when you’re looking at colleges, so here are some other ways to do it.
Follow Colleges’ Social Channels
Follow schools your child’s interested on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to get brief updates on activities on campus. Try to find social channels not connected to the admission or marketing offices!
Get a Subscription to…
The student newspaper! The student newspaper is full of delicious nuggets of truth because it’s written and published by students — and no topic (no matter how juicy) gets left behind. Get notifications when the newest events and issues happen and learn opinions written by your child’s potential peers.
Online Maps Exist for a Reason
Do some colleges offer a cool aerial view of a campus? They sure do. Tap into the bird’s-eye view of college maps to get a sense of colleges’ layout. Try mapping the distance between common places, like the library and the dining hall. See whether your child can walk to restaurants, theaters and coffee shops close by.
Check out the College’s Online Events Calendar
Colleges often host an array of events, from musical artists and comedians to free movies and game nights. Seeing a calendar of events can give you a better understanding of the fun activities available to students.
Research the Surrounding Town
Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called the “campus bubble?” I referred to it sometimes when talking to students who lived in our town. It means when students become insulated from the town and never leave campus because everything they need is there. The town kind of vanishes and the campus is the town. Does that make sense?
Still, your child might have to venture to Target every once in a while. So, what’s the town or city like? Do some online research and learn about the benefits outside The Bubble.
Check Out Student Profiles
During the virtual visit, you’ll probably see student videos like Bethel’s. Poke around more, however. You might find more student testimonials on the website or through social media channels. Can your child relate to that student? Does he get excited by the student’s research project, internship or other opportunities? Does he want to have the same major?
Ask the admission office whether your child can talk to that exact student profiled.
You Can Still Do a Lot, but Remember…
Yes — kick your feet up, coffee cup in hand, messy bun proudly displayed while you take a campus tour.
“Ooh” and “Ahh” over beautiful residence halls, cool science labs and more.
Just remember, nothing replaces a true college tour. If your child thinks he can choose a college based on virtual college tours, remind him that:
- People make a great college experience, not beautiful buildings.
- Campuses show all their best stuff in a video. The junior/senior apartments might be beautiful (they’ll show these on video) but the freshman residence hall could be a pit.
- It’s important to talk to as many people as possible — get comfy with Zoom!
And when (and if) you feel comfortable, go on an in-person visit. Please. I’ll even send you the mask and hand sanitizer myself.
It’s essay season!
Itching to get your hands on your student’s application essay or personal statement essay? Just once?
Don’t do it.
Your child’s essay may be deeply personal. Unless your child offers you a share in the review, remain as hands-off during this process as possible.
What you can do: Go over the “rules” beforehand. You don’t want to be the parent who says, “Oh, by the way, don’t repeat any other part of the application, like your awards, grades or test scores. You’ve already reported those” — after your child wades through the essay.)
You’ll hear, “Mooo-om! That’s the whole third paragraph!”
Instead, intervene at the beginning if you want to help with the college essay — read this first!
1. What’s unique?
You know your child better than anyone else. You know
what makes him tick (oooh, get rid of clichés!)
He shouldn’t write about what he thinks will impress a scholarship committee or admission committee.
In other words, your child shouldn’t write about world hunger if it’s not his thing. Let’s say his thing is caring for animals. Does he get up at dawn every day to birth calves with the veterinarian next door?
He should write about cow placentas if his life is all about cow placentas! Admission committees want to hear about unique interests.
Can your child think of something unique — besides football, soccer or school subjects? (Overused topics.)
Maybe your daughter’s an Origami wizard. Maybe your son overcame OCD.
Get your child thinking about his own passions — and how to craft these ideas in his own voice.
2. Writing can’t suck.
Obviously. It’s got to be interesting. Check out this intro:
Let’s acquaint. Born in New York City, I grew up filthy on the streets. Snowflakes landed on my dà pán jī and my sleeping bag in synchronicity. Mrs. Ming at Hou Yi fed me six times a day and I learned to swear in Chinese.
Just kidding. I grew up in Greenwich — privileged, yes, but check this out. I’m typing this essay with my toes. That’s right — no arms!
Wow, doesn’t that get your attention?
Compare this to the first two sentences of my own autobiography (I wrote it in fourth grade):
I was born on a cold, windy day in November. I was a greenish color and I cried when I was born.
High schoolers sometimes can’t kick the passive voice because it’s easier.
Plus, bad English teachers + maxing out word count = raging passive voice.
How do you make sure your kid writes unlike he speaks? We all speak passively, and not everyone writes well. Remember those old summer vacation essays?
“We were on our summer vacation and Cape Cod was the only place I wanted to be.”
Get rid of clichés in your own speech and remind your high schooler. By the way, your child should strike anything redundant (extra words — yuck!) and ambiguous (give concrete details!).
3. Get someone else on board ahead of time.
Ask to critique his work and your kid looks at you, buggy-eyed, like you suggested staring at elephant poop. “Mom, you’re an insurance agent, not an English professor. Please sit this one out.”
Get a third party involved wayyyy in advance, preferably someone who knows really good writing. Ask your copywriter friend, your child’s English teacher — someone other than you or your partner.
(Even if you know your writing skills sparkle!)
4. Encourage your essayist to take it slow.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. (No clichés, remember?)
The Common App requires a 650-word essay, so encourage your child to make them count — slowly. Let’s say your child must meet a November 1 deadline for School X.
Ask him to start the essay now. Why not write 100 words over the course of six weeks? (Beats writing it all two days beforehand.) Pencil it out, like this:
- Write 100 words: Week of September 13
- Another 100 words: Week of September 20
- Crank out another 100 words: Week of September 27
- Get it! Another 100 words: Week of October 4 (Already up to 400!)
…and so on. There’s nothing worse than last-minute panic. You know that from personal experience, right?
Help your child map out the entire next six weeks — and make sure he or she ends up with more than 250 words. It’s tough to impress an admission committee in only 250 words.
Your child may fill out other applications instead of the Common App. Schools often offer a “suggested limit” — don’t go over that. Try to use the Common App’s 650-word limit if no suggested limit exists.
5. Add in buffer time.
Add in time for creative stewing. For Netflix spirals. For reading a book chapter, typing a sentence, reading another chapter and writing another sentence.
It’s impossible for most people to sit down and write in one sitting. (Right now, I’m watching T.V., reading and working on three other freelance articles at a time.) I can’t commit to one thing at a time — your kid can’t, either. The point is, within those 100-word weeks, add in lots of buffer time.
Don’t forget to have your high schooler put the essay down quite a few times — think cold eyes and lots of revisions!
7. Answer the prompt!
It’s easy for admission officers to throw out essays that don’t specifically answer the prompts provided. Maybe the prompt asks about your child’s achievements and he answers with a lengthy blow-by-blow of his latest breakup.
Not relevant. Furthermore, make sure he relates it to his future performance in college.
Read the prompt, then set it aside for a day or two. You don’t want your child to misread the prompt!
8. Resist the urge to take over.
You can’t write the essay for your child. Not even a small sentence here and there. If you do, you might give yourself away! Many old-timers slip in two spaces after every period or exclamation mark. Nobody does that anymore. (And if you do it, stop.)
Designate yourself “Cheerleader Mom” and reach out to your already-appointed proofreader instead. Your copywriter friend offers a subjectivity that you don’t have. The copywriter friend you know doesn’t have the same “My kid’s a genius!” bent or ample criticisms. (And if he does criticize, he’ll use a diplomatic approach — “How ‘bout we say this instead?”)
Help, but Stay Hands Off
Just like nobody warned you how hard it would be to watch your child fall down as a one-year-old, nobody warned you how tough it would be to keep your mitts off that admission essay.
Trust that outside advisor to walk your child through it — and if you need to, hire help!
One last tip: Encourage your child to read great essays. Your child can glean a lot from samples, as long as he doesn’t copy them verbatim.
Pulling your hair out because your child won’t get going with college applications? Or maybe it’s tricky to get the application deadlines organized, the essays written, understanding the types of college applications…
Okay, you know what? Let’s not overwhelm you more.
When I first became an admission counselor, I had zero awareness that other schools even had admission deadlines.
Because we used rolling admission and we could accept college applications at any time.
Are you aware of the fact that colleges have application deadlines?
Ha! Just kidding — I know you know.
Here’s how to take the flummox out of college applications. Flummox: What a great word!
Maybe your kiddo can add it to his application essay!
Step 1: Review your child’s short list.
Is the list still the list? It could have changed since your daughter’s junior year. COVID-19 hit and everything changed. Your child may no longer want to go to a school far from home. She may be less than interested in the school down the road, which has all online classes — and nothing else.
The point is, where she was last year could be completely different from now. She also could have added six more to the list since then.
Step 2: Have a family conversation.
Now’s the time to talk about what makes sense for your child’s needs — together. Maybe your child has severe allergies and you think that wearing a mask everywhere will make it harder to breathe.
Maybe you feel that your child had a horrible junior year and those college prospects don’t look nearly as good as they could have.
Step 3: Understand the various admission types.
Different schools = different admission types.
Let’s do a quick overview of admission types to help guide you through.
Your child can apply to a bunch of schools with the regular application submission deadline. The deadline itself varies between institutions.
Regular admission deadlines typically fall in early January and admission offers are sent out in late March or early April. Your student has until May 1 to either accept or decline the admission offers. Colleges that offer regular admission usually incorporate an early college admission option (detailed below).
Colleges release admission decisions regularly — sometimes daily — instead of sending them all out on one target date with rolling admission.
An admission committee reviews your child’s application as soon as all required information is in, rather than setting an application deadline and reviewing applications in a group. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly.
Rolling admissions decisions are non-binding, which means that your child will not be required to attend that school. Your child will not need to decide whether to enroll until May 1, or National Candidate Reply Day.
Open admission means a college accepts any high school graduate, regardless of academic performance, until all spaces in the incoming class are filled. Community colleges often admit students through open admission.
Early Action (EA)
Early action gives your child the option to submit an application before the regular deadline. These plans are not binding, which means that your child is not required to attend that particular college. Some colleges have an early action option called EA II — a later application deadline.
Early Decision (ED)
Early decision means your child submits an application to his or her first-choice college before the regular deadline. Early decision plans are binding. This means your child must enroll in the college if admitted and accept the financial aid award offered — immediately. Some colleges have an early decision option called ED II — a later application deadline than a school’s regular ED plan.
Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action
Single-choice early action, also known as restrictive early action or restricted early action, is another non-binding option. Your child is not required to attend if accepted. However, your your child may not apply to any other school during the early action period. It’s a combo of both early action and early decision. In other words, it’s less restrictive than early decision but more restrictive than early action.
Step 4: Make a list of college deadlines.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all college application deadlines fell on the same date every year?
Get my spreadsheet, the College Money Tips Visit Spreadsheet, by signing up here. It’s totally free!
The spreadsheet includes everything you want to keep track of — including application deadlines. Save it as your own and fill it out however you’d like to use it. It’s a great way to get you college search in gear.
And, for heaven’s sake, you can keep track of all those application deadlines!
Step 5: Understand the various types of college applications.
In addition to admission types, you also contend with different application types.
It’s okay, though. Each college makes it very clear on its website which type of application it uses. (Make sure to mark it down the College Money Tips Visit Spreadsheet!)
You can apply to nearly 900 colleges and universities using the Common Application (aka Common App), including public and private colleges and universities. In all 50 U.S. states and 20 countries!
- Gather materials, such as transcripts and test scores.
- Create an account.
- Add colleges your student plans to apply to.
- Get recommendations or other official forms from counselors, teachers and others.
- Plan the essay and write it.
- Submit your application.
The Coalition aimed to improve the college application process. MyCoalition, is designed to engage students, particularly under-represented students, in the college application process You use a digital storage locker, interactive Collaboration Space and the application is accepted at all member schools.
- Start application.
- Choose your applicant type.
- Follow all the links to the various application parts to complete the college’s application. These steps vary depending on the college.
Some schools use the Universal Application — but many schools also accept the Common and Coalition Applications. Figure out which schools on your child’s list coincide with a specific application type and concentrate on that one.
- Click “Start New.”
- First years complete the First Year Admissions Application. Transfer Applicants complete the Transfer Admissions Application.
- Fill out the Personal Statement or essay portion if necessary.
- Fill out supplemental forms.
- Complete recommendation and report forms required by the colleges. Each college may require different Part 3 forms and some may not require any at all.
- First-year applicants can request the Instructor Recommendation, School Report, Midyear Report, and the Final Report as well as the Early Decision Agreement or First Marking Period Report when applicable.
Colleges’ Own Application
Many colleges don’t bother with the Common Application, Coalition Application or Universal Application. You must fill out their own application! Some colleges accept a shared application like the Common Application or their own application.
For example, the institution where I worked (a private college) requires its own application. We didn’t accept the Common, Coalition or Universal Application.
If you compared them all, you might see similarities and differences between all application types.
Step 6: Time block.
Help your student set aside specific amounts of time to fill out the application. Let’s say your student must complete the application by November 1 for Early Decision.
Sit down with your child and time block out specific evenings and weekends (working around soccer and piano lessons!) to work on the essay and other application sections. It might look like this:
- College X application: September 15
- Common Application recommendation requests: September 18
- Common Application essay: September 21 to 30
- And so on!
Encourage your high school to tackle small sections at a time. It’ll keep your child from getting overwhelmed.
Small steps! It’s all it takes.
Step 7: Get help — but schedule ahead!
Your child’s English teacher might be a whiz at crafting essays. Have him reach out to her for help with plenty of time to spare before the deadline. His teacher might be helping 60 other kids with their essays, too!
That brings up another point: Make sure your child asks for recommendation letters in plenty of time. Weeks, if not months, in advance! You want to make sure your child’s recommendation doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
The reality: You don’t know how long it’ll take your child to complete the application. It might take days, it might take weeks!
But you and your student want to get this part of the college search just perfect. Take plenty of time to get it right. Your child won’t regret crafting the perfect essay, waiting on a stunning recommendation letter and more.
Just build in plenty of time to do it!
Time to put a zip in your step, folks! Are you ready to transform into a savvy prospective parent?
What do savvy prospective parents do?
They ask excellent questions.
One family asked me such difficult questions in the admission office that I gave them an “A+” for “hardest questions of the year” and said, “You should go talk to my boss.”
They asked me questions like:
- “What’s the college pay for water and electricity and how does that work into my son’s tuition?”
- “How much money do your college’s LEED buildings save per year?”
I’m sorry to say, I didn’t know the answer to their questions.
The point is, it’s important to ask relevant questions. We’re busy. Schedules only allow us to squeeze in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunchtime. That’s about it.
Relevant questions get to the innards of what you need to know. Asking the right person the right questions is paramount.
Was I the right person to ask about water, electricity and LEED buildings?
No — and does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? They should’ve asked the director of facilities, “How much waste does this school produce and how does that cost me money?”
“How much will it cost me?” — the real question.
What are the questions you should be asking? Let’s conquer those questions to get you started.
Who’s my child’s admission counselor?
Let’s start out with a simple question. This question means everything, though.
You can even figure this out using the college’s website — you just need to select your state and sometimes even your child’s high school. Wham! It’s that easy to find your child’s go-to person.
Why is it important to get to know your child’s admission counselor?
Here’s an easy answer. One day, circa 2012, a student panel was underway during one of our visit days. Here’s how it went:
Parent in audience: “Why did you come to this college?”
Student panelist on stage: “My admission counselor was awesome! She was one of the main reasons I decided to come here.”
A million reasons, folks! It’s a great question because:
- Your child’s admission counselor helps your family navigate financial aid, scholarships and more. The admission counselor may even be able to point you toward other scholarship opportunities. They may be scholarships in your community or online scholarships he/she knows your child could qualify for.
- The admission counselor can help you and your child make connections. Whether you need to talk to a biology professor, a financial aid officer or someone else at the school your child’s interested in, the admission counselor is the conduit to making that happen. Take advantage of it!
- Admission counselors know a lot about the college they work for. They know about the fun stuff, the clubs and organizations launching, the most popular majors and more. Admission counselors are often alumni, so they really have special knowledge about an institution. Ask an admission counselor what the best residence hall is and you’ll get an earful in milliseconds.
- Admission counselors know what types of students thrive at their institution. Let’s face it. Not every college is a great fit for every student. Why not ask what the ideal student at College/University XYZ looks like? It’ll be interesting to hear the admission counselor’s response.
- Admission counselors are statistics collectors. Admission counselors’ brains cannot go on autopilot. They should be able to know the percentage of students who graduate, how many go on to graduate school, how many get internships and more. (Just don’t ask them really quirky questions like that family did with me!)
- Admission counselors know what it takes to get admitted. Admission counselors are available to walk your child through the admission process. They should be able to tell you whether your child has a shot at getting admitted with his or her current credentials. An admission counselor may recommend submitting an additional letter of recommendation or other supporting documentation. They’re experts at strengthening an application. Ask before you send it in.
- Admission counselors can guide you through the process. You’re in the know at all times when you’ve got an admission counselor to guide you.
What should I know about the admission process right now?
Question two. I know it relates to question one, but it’s an important breakout question. Colleges’ admission processes have changed.
Maybe COVID-19 pushed ACTs or SATs to the annals of history. Or not.
Maybe admission offices shoved interviews off the cliff. But maybe not.
You might just be learning the admission process at one school. However, if your child became aware of admission requirements for a particular school last year, things may be different. Double-check!
A few good questions:
- Do I need to supply my ACT or SAT score? If not, what will that do to my child’s admission chances? (Test optional should really mean test optional!) Check FairTest’s ACT/SAT test optional college and universities. FairTest is a national advocacy organization that seeks to “end the misuses and flaws of testing practices.” Most accredited 4-year higher education institutions adopted test-optional policies for fall of 2021 admission.
- If a college or university isn’t on FairTest’s list: Why does your college or university require ACT or SAT scores? Listen carefully to the reasons and determine whether it’s still important for your child to apply to that college.
- What other metrics will you use for admission purposes instead of standardized test scores? Every college’s response will be different. Find out.
What are your COVID-19 policies right now?
Should you find out about a school’s COVID-19 processes, even if your child’s a sophomore?
True, it’s tough to say what that will look like in a few years. However, learning more about a college’s process right now can help you and your student:
- Understand a college’s response to COVID-19. It’s important to evaluate a college on all fronts, and it’s critical to agree with the college’s response to the crisis.
- Figure out what policies may look like down the road. It’s really possible that things could stay the same for next year and beyond. Truth be told, we don’t know how long this virus will hang around!
- Learn the online learning protocol and whether it makes sense for your student. Maybe your student says he’s 86ing online learning and you like another college’s COVID-19 policy better. Maybe your child wants to forgo a residential experience altogether. You can find really cheap ways to get an online degree!
- Assess how a college can help on the technology front. You and your child may not have the technology needed to make Zoom classes happen. How will the college help?
- Determine how a college makes classes interactive or uses creativity within the constraints of online learning. Yeah, how does a chemistry professor do labs online? I’m sure you’re really curious. (I am, too.)
Can my child connect with a professor or other necessary individual?
… or through Zoom if in-person meetings aren’t possible?
One of the best ways to get to know faculty members at institutions is to… meet them!
- Your child will know instantly whether he wants to learn from that person. (First impressions!) You should meet a particular physics professor at my alma mater. He’s got personality plus and he’s exactly what you’d imagine when you think of the stereotypical physics professor. The students rave about him. He’d greet everyone on the first day by asking them their first names and one fact about them — and remembered everything. Great professor!
- Even if your child changes his mind on major — most do! — you’ll still get a feel for how the faculty members work with students. I think it’s a bad idea to choose a college based solely on major, but I do think all students should get to know at least one professor during the college search, if possible. It gives your child a general idea of whether professors are hands-on professors, whether they’re available for students and what their office hours are like.
- Who else should you meet? You might not be interested in hearing from a professor. What about a dietitian? The tutoring center? A coach?
How can my child talk to a current student?
Your child must talk to a current student! I don’t care if it’s on Zoom, over the phone, in person — however it can happen, make it happen. You can find out a lot from students, who don’t spew the same jargon-filled, marketing vocabulary that a professor does.
You can learn more about:
- The overall experience
- Gossip about professors
- Residence hall living
- Classes and academic rigor
- Internship availability
- Students’ opinions about the college’s COVID-19 response
- Quality of food in the cafeteria (why not?!)
- Athletic experiences if your student is an athlete
- Class and day-to-day structure
- Why the student chose to attend that college (my favorite question!)
Can you think of other topics your student should ask about? Think your student will never agree to talk to another student? How about if the admission office arranges it and the other student has tons common with that student? If you set it up, it might not happen, but if the admission office arranges it? — totally different story.
What’s one thing you can guarantee that my student will experience at this college and why?
I really, really like this question! Know why? It puts a dart right in the middle of a college’s values.
Once, a student said this to me about a competitor school: “I really didn’t enjoy my tour at XYZ College. The tour guide spent all her time talking about the religious opportunities on campus. I found out that over 60 percent of students at the college attend chapel or other religious services and I realized that college wouldn’t be a great fit for me at all.”
Now, in reality, the college actually could have been a great fit for the student because it offered an excellent academic experience. And the tour guide was wrong. Just 15 percent of students participated in religious activities. However, the student didn’t believe she’d fit in. It worked out to our benefit, however. The tour guide at our college did an excellent job of sharing all of the other salient points for the student and she came to our college! (It really is all about perception, isn’t it?)
Find out whether the school will meet your kiddo’s expectations. Ask around! Sometimes people take a students’ point of view as the gospel truth — and, well, my story proves what can happen there.
How much financial aid can I get?
Think you have to wait around to find out how much college will cost? Until you get your child’s financial aid award?
You can find out long before you get that aid award in the mail and can know the cost wayyyy in advance.
You’ll find a net price calculator on every college’s website. The net price calculator holds the secrets: What you’ll pay out-of-pocket or through student loans. The college’s total cost — tuition, room and board and fees, minus any grants and scholarships — tells you what you pay. Is it a full, robust snapshot with every detail?
But you can get close.
By the way, you can also ask for a preliminary financial aid award or a financial aid early estimator.
They give you lots of great information. Bottom line: You’re armed with a lot more information way before you receive a financial aid award.
How to Get A+ Answers
How to get A+ answers? It’s simple.
The only way you’re going to get answers to your questions is to ask them. Push a little. It’s okay! In fact, I firmly believe that’s a parent’s job during the college search process.
Ask tough questions. And when the admission counselor can’t answer — she asks her boss. (Just like I did.)
And then, when the boss can’t answer, he goes to the facilities planning and management personnel who can answer (or whoever it is.)
The point is, you’re the customer. You should get the answers you want and need.
September is College Savings Month! Saving for college can seem like one of those long, arduous tasks that never ends… like figuring out what to make for dinner for the rest of your life, perpetual laundry, etc.
I know there are a couple of fears out there when it comes to saving for college. They’re super real, and it would be silly not to address them.
Some common fears stop us from saving for college. Let’s address these so you can jump right in and start saving.
1. The Fear of Believing You Won’t Save Enough
Are you worried that you’ll never be able to save enough? Do your eyes get wider and wider every year as college costs rise? Worries about not being able to save enough may be enough to stop you before you even get going.
Here’s the deal. You may not be able to save enough money to pay for every penny of your child’s college education — I get how it can get you down before you even start.
However, here are some quick reminders:
- Your child may qualify for merit-based scholarships.
- You can take advantage of a tuition installment plan. (Don’t forget how much purchasing power your monthly income has!)
- The sticker price is just a starting point. I don’t know a single student who paid the full sticker price to attend our institution when I worked in admission.
- Price transparency may continue over time. A handful of schools have started to reduce their costs using something called a tuition reset. It attempts to offer more transparency in the college cost landscape. Check out an article I wrote about tuition resets for the “Journal of College Admission” and what they mean.
- Colleges may be getting more creative in the pandemic’s wake. For example, check out Unity College’s new Distance Education and Hybrid Learning plan, where students can choose to take only one or two courses per term to be full-time and can choose online, in-person or a combination of both.
- Federal financial aid is usually easy to get.
Bottom line, try to save as much as you can, even if it’s just a little bit.
2. The Fear of Getting it Wrong
It’s hard to start something new. It’s even tougher when you think you might get it all wrong. So what do we sometimes do? That’s right — never even start.
How do you get over the fear of doing something big in your life?
That’s right — you just take a deep breath and do it.
For the longest time, I was afraid of planting a garden. I wasn’t sure how to do it, despite the fact that I grew up helping my parents pick green beans. My parents always planted a vegetable garden (they still do!) — full of delicious zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn and more. You know, though, when you’re a kid, you don’t really pay attention to allll the details — how to plant the seeds, when to plant them, how to make the rows and more. Plus, I was worried about whether or not I’d have time to keep up with the weeds.
But one spring, I said, “Enough is enough. We’re going to have a garden!” My husband and I took the plunge, tried it, and we’ve had a garden for two years now. No more excuses!
Did we fail? Yeah — our tomatoes didn’t grow the first year. I think we ended up with only six pea pods. But we got better the next year! Our tomatoes are flourishing right now and we have more than we could ever eat. We’ve had to give oodles away to the neighbors!
Even if you don’t get quite started the way you want on your college savings plan, you can pivot. The point is, get started and go from there.
Fortunately, many college savings plans (like 529s) you can enter your risk tolerance, child’s age and your investment gets more conservative naturally. In most cases, it’s impossible to mess it up!
3. The Fear of Thinking You’re Behind
Has your best friend been saving for college for 18 years — before her child was even born? And you haven’t been able to save that much all?
Your child is more likely to go to college if you’ve saved just a little bit. Even with savings of less than $500, a child is 25% more likely to enroll in college and 64% more likely to graduate compared to a student with no savings, according to a study from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).
4. Thinking You Don’t Have Enough on Hand to Save
Worried about not having extra cash to plump up a college savings account? What if, instead of agonizing over this, think of it as the fun part. How creative can you get?
Can you manipulate your budget?
Sit down and divide your expenses into “needs” and “wants.” “Needs” should only include those necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and school supplies.
Anything else that isn’t an essential expense should be put into your “want” category. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and nice clothes that aren’t required for a job.
Can you make more money?
What if you made some spare cash every month and vowed to dedicate this to college savings? Do you have a specific talent or skillset?
What is the best thing that you can charge $10 for? Do that, then do it 10 more times! Can you make crochet hats? Can you sell your PR skills? Make birthday cakes? Babysit? Serve as a sales consultant? Figure out what it is that you can do so well that someone else will pay you money to do it.
My friend Angela makes these gorgeous signs for her company, Touch of Twine Design. They are so beautiful. They’re white with a beautiful script font — and can say anything. Her customers order inspirational quotes, poem snippets, Bible verses — whatever they want. The money she makes goes into a college account for her two boys.
Another couple I know scavenged pallets on the side of the road, at work at a manufacturing facility and more to make furniture, sold it online and made a lot of money.
The sky’s the limit. What talent can you offer the world?
5. Not Knowing How to Save
It’s a case of too many options, isn’t it? You can invest in regular savings accounts, CDs, 529 plans, UTMA/UGMAs, Roth IRAs, custodial accounts, and on and on.
I LOVE all of these for different reasons, but I really recommend checking out UNest. It’ll give you a quick win right away! It offers a tax-advantaged savings plan option based on your risk tolerance and age of your child.
Can you invest in stocks for college? Sure! Just like you can invest in regular mutual funds, bonds and more investing options we’ve listed.
However, the advantage of investing with UNest or any 529 plan is that you get tax benefits.
Is this your only option? Of course not!
A stock is an investment in a specific company. You buy one share of a company’s earnings and assets when you buy a stock. Companies sell shares of stock in their businesses to raise cash. You can sell stocks when they increase in value and this method can also result in high returns.
You lend money to a company or government when you buy a bond. Your bond purchase allows the bond issuer to borrow your money and pay you back with interest.
Bonds offer lower returns but do come with the risk that the bond issuer could default on its payments. (However, bonds are typically very safe investments.) Government bonds are the safest investment because they’re backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government.
Mutual funds are bundles of stocks, bonds and other investments. You can purchase a large number of these types of investments in one transaction. You pay a professional manager to invest your money. It’s typically more expensive to buy mutual funds than stocks or bonds because you pay a middleman to manage that money.
An index fund is a type of mutual fund — but there’s a difference. An index fund passively tracks an index. This means you don’t pay a money manager to pick and choose investments for you. For example, all S&P 500 index funds follow the performance of the S&P 500 by holding company stock within that index.
Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are also a type of index fund because they also track an index. Like index funds, they are not actively managed and less expensive than mutual funds.
The difference between index funds and ETFs is that ETFs trade on an exchange like a stock — you can buy or sell throughout the trading day as the price fluctuates. Mutual funds and index funds, on the other hand, are priced once at the end of each trading day.
Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
When you buy a certificate of deposit (CD), you give your financial institution money for a specific time period. When that time period is over, you get the amount you originally invested, plus a prespecified amount of interest. The longer the loan period, the higher your interest rate. Note that you’ll have to pay penalties if you take your money out sooner.
How do you invest in any one of these types of investments?
- Go to an insured financial institution like a bank or credit union for a CD or government bond.
- You can go to a financial advisor for a mutual fund.
- You can find mutual funds, index funds or ETFs through a discount broker like Robinhood or a large broker like Vanguard.
Just remember, investing in a 529 plan offers more tax benefits for approved educational expenses — but a 529 plan isn’t your only option.
6. Fear of Future College Costs
Ahhhh… This is a tough one. Use a college calculator like the College Board’s College Cost Calculator to determine how much it may cost to send your child to college for four years. I plugged in some numbers and it informed me that in 11 years, it’ll cost me over $311,000 to send my child to college.
I understand the the numbers look scary. However, I still come back to this:
- Merit-based scholarships take care of a chunk of the costs.
- A tuition installment plan can help with month-to-month costs.
- The sticker price is just a starting point and in no way says that you’ll pay the full price.
- You can use creativity to save. (What’s that talent, again?)
Take Advantage of College Savings Month!
If you’re ready to save for college, now’s the time! You have so many options at your fingertips, so take advantage of it.
Don’t forget to get the start-of-school checklist for the college search!
Move over, Yale and Harvard.
Not everyone needs to (or should) shop for a top-name school. You can still find lots of high-quality colleges and universities among the elites.
Gems glisten everywhere. Don’t discount the liberal arts college down the street because it may be able to offer a connection that you can’t find anywhere else.
A Stanford study says “fit” is more important than rankings. I really do believe too many students and families rely on college rankings published by well-known organizations to define quality. The higher the ranking doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for your child. The study found that the “metrics used in these rankings are weighted arbitrarily and are not accurate indicators of a college’s quality or positive outcomes for students.”
Do I even need to write any more?
I chatted with Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling, and she told me a great story.
“Several years ago I had a straight-A student with strong test scores and interesting extracurricular activities who was a bit lacking in self-confidence. She felt strongly that she should attend a college where she would be the ‘big fish in a little pond’ instead of the ‘little fish in a big pond.’ It was very important to her that she choose an institution where she would be at the top and be recognized as a superstar.
She set her sights on a public university with a 70% acceptance rate. She did apply to other colleges, including those that are much more selective, and was actually accepted into every school she applied to. However, she stuck with her plan to attend the public university.
She SOARED there. She was at the top of her class, where she won all sorts of awards. She is well-known at the school, and they’ve asked her to assume all sorts of leadership roles. She has made mini-promotional films for the school, and now, as a recent alumna, they’ve asked her back to speak multiple times.
In this case, she didn’t feel up to attending a highly selective university where the competition would be fierce. Instead, she decided to choose a school that isn’t overly competitive and where she would stand out. It paid off with lots of internships and job offers, and it built her confidence.”
Yessss! This is exactly what I’m talking about.
Best Reasons to Look for a Non-Selective or Moderately Selective College
Most people think the only reason your child would want to look for a non-selective college is because you couldn’t hack it due to poor academic achievement. Not so. There are lots of great reasons to opt for a less-selective institution.
1. Your Child May Be More Likely to Get In
Obviously, the fact that your child can get in is one of the reasons to apply to non-selective colleges.
How do you find out whether a college is selective or not? Take a look at its admission requirements. Most colleges list their admission requirements, which may look something like this:
- Graduate from an accredited high school or equivalent by the time of enrollment.
- Rank in the upper half of your high school graduating class.
- Have ACT or SAT-I scores high enough to predict probable success. Note: ACT and SAT test scores may not be required if you’re applying for admission right now. Many colleges do not want to place undue hardships on students who cannot take the ACT or SAT due to closed testing locations.
- English: Four years, including literature
- Math: Two or more years, including algebra, advanced algebra and geometry
- Social studies: Three or more years, including American and European history
- Sciences: Two or more years of lab science
- Foreign language: Two or more years
That may be the extent of a college’s requirements! You can also call an admission counselor for more information about specific college selectivity.
2. Your Child Will Still Take Rigorous Classes
Make no mistake — it’s a challenge to get through organic chemistry at just about any college or university. Lower selectivity institutions definitely offer rigorous coursework.
Just because your child’s valedictorian of her high school class or achieved a 34 ACT doesn’t mean that she won’t feel challenged at a lower selectivity institution.
- Some less selective colleges let academically talented students work with faculty on research projects as well.
- Students at lower selectivity institutions may also receive more personalized attention from staff.
- Some lower selectivity institutions smaller classroom size with hands-on teaching may be more conducive to learning than a large lecture hall format.
- You may get to know classmates and faculty closely and form lasting personal or professional relationships.
- You child may get more opportunities to work on projects, connect to internships through faculty and gain valuable job experience.
3. Your Family May Experience More Personalization During the Admission Process
Less selective schools must work a little harder for their students. That means you and your child reap the benefits. In other words, highly selective colleges and universities don’t have to work nearly as hard to recruit students — they naturally come to them. That means that less selective institutions must do the hard work of calling, emailing, texting and even engaging students on social media.
You’re more likely to get one-on-one attention from an admission counselor who must carefully work through an application list. As an admission counselor, it was my job to personalize the admission process as much as possible. I would try to learn:
- Students’ goals
- Other schools on their list
- Their favorite things (we once sent a box of Wheaties to a student because we knew it was his favorite cereal!)
- Connections they’d already made with others at the college
- About their families and friends
- Anything else I could think of!
We made the college search process a personalized experience — and that might just happen if you’re looking into a less selective institution.
4. The College Application Process is Less Strenuous
Chances are, your child won’t have to worry about a complicated application process if he or she is looking at a less selective institution. Here’s a quick overview.
Regular admission means your child can apply to as many colleges as possible. An application submission deadline varies between institutions. Regular admission deadlines typically fall in early January and admission offers get sent out in late March or early April. Your student has until May 1 to either accept or decline admission offers. (Your child may not encounter this type of admission, either.)
When I was an admission counselor, our college used rolling admission. Rolling admission means a college releases admission decisions regularly instead of sending them all out on one target date.
An admission committee will only review your child’s application as soon as all required information is in. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly. (Students learned of an admission decision within two weeks at our college!)
Rolling admission decisions are non-binding. This means that your child will not be required to attend that school and will not need to make a decision until May 1, which is National Candidate Reply Day.
Open admission means a college accepts any high school graduate (no matter what those grades look like) until all spaces in the incoming class are filled. Two-year community colleges immediately come to mind — most community colleges have a two-year open admission policy. Note that a college with a general open admission policy may have certain admission requirements for specific programs.
Your child probably won’t encounter these types of admission at lower selectivity institutions:
- Early Action (EA), which means your student has the option to submit an application before the regular deadline. Early action plans are not binding, which means that your child is not required to attend.
- Early Decision (ED) means your child can submit an application to his or her first-choice college before the regular deadline and get an admission decision earlier than usual. Early decision plans are binding, which means your child must attend that institution.
- Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action means your child is not required to attend if accepted. However, if using this method, your child may not apply to any other school during the early action period only.
5. Lower Costs
You’ll typically find lower selectivity institutions in areas that also include lower costs of living (not big urban areas). The savings on rent and tuition might be worth it.
Your child may be able to get an academic scholarship. Many colleges give half or full-tuition academic scholarships to students who have a very good high school GPA, ACT or SAT scores and class rank. The most selective colleges will not award your child a merit scholarship.
“We had a student who wanted to study business. Although she was accepted at multiple selective programs, she chose to study at Bentley University (45-50% acceptance rate), where they placed her into the honors program, provided her with a large scholarship, and of course, she received all the perks that came along with the honors program. She loved feeling like she was the top of the class!” says Kopp Weingarten.
Kopp Weingarten also said, “We also had a student who chose a large public university in the Midwest where she could use her AP credits to get advanced standing, basically entering as a sophomore. She graduated in three years, saved tons of money and was accepted into a top-tier Ph.D. program.”
6. College Selectivity is Not a Reliable Indicator of Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being
The Stanford study found no significant relationship between a school’s selectivity and student learning, future job satisfaction or well-being. Furthermore, the study found only modest financial benefits of attending more selective colleges — and that applied to first-generation and other underserved students.
Individual student characteristics (background, major, ambition) may make more of a difference in terms of post-college outcomes than the institutions themselves.
7. Learning Engagement is Most Important
Students’ learning among a campus community may offer the key to positive outcomes after college, according to the Stanford study. For instance:
- Students participate in service learning and thrive when they apply what they learn in the classroom to real life settings.
- Students are successful when mentors at the college encourage them to pursue personal goals.
- Those who are successful after college engage in multi-semester projects.
8. Grades May Be Higher
Your child may be more likely to graduate with honors at a less selective institution.
“When students apply to medical school, the two most important aspects of their applications are their GPA and their MCATs,” says Kopp Weingarten. “We had a student who felt it might be difficult to maintain a high GPA at a highly competitive college where everyone was aiming for ‘A’ grades. He chose to attend a college where he felt he could keep his GPA high due to the lower competition at the school. Due to the fact that he was at the top of their admit pile, he received a huge scholarship and only paid about $10,000 a year for a private college. It worked out for him because he graduated with a near-perfect GPA and was accepted into medical school. He then had the money he saved to put toward paying for medical school.”
Think Carefully About College Selectivity
The main drawback of graduating from a less selective college is brand recognition. However, there are other things to think about, such as whether your child actually ends up graduating. Plus, if your child plans to go to graduate school, nobody cares where he or she goes for an undergraduate education.
Colleges with higher selectivity are also much more likely to graduate students than those with lower selectivity. However, once your child does graduate, there’s little difference in life outcomes, as the Stanford study suggests.
“Sometimes, the most highly selective schools can open the door for a candidate (job or graduate school). But what really matters is how well the student performs at the school they are at. The school doesn’t make the student successful — it’s up to the student to do that on their own,” says Kopp Weingarten.
Tip: Check the financial solvency of institutions your child is interested in (particularly those small private colleges that were already in trouble before the pandemic). Some have already closed. Attending a lower selectivity public school is less of a risk because if those institutions close, students will still be a part of the state system.